If you're the victim of identity theft or a data breach—like the one at Equifax in 2017—you might be considering putting a credit freeze or a credit lock on your credit file. These options are similar in that they both make it more difficult for an identity thief to open a new account in your name, but differences do exist.
The main differences between these options are:
While a credit lock might seem like a reasonable option, a credit freeze is a better choice from a legal viewpoint and will often be less expensive.
A credit freeze prevents a lender or creditor from accessing your credit history. If an identity thief tries to use your Social Security number and other personal information to apply for a mortgage, credit card, car loan, or other form of credit, the creditor would turn down the application because it can’t review your credit score. (A credit freeze won't prevent misuse of your current accounts though.)
How to freeze your credit file. To fully protect your credit by freezing it, you have to initiate a freeze with each of the three major credit reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Typically, a credit freeze lasts indefinitely (unless you thaw your file), though in a few states it expires after seven years. (Learn more about credit freezes, including how to set one up, in What's a Credit Freeze and When Should I Use One?)
How to thaw your credit file. Once your credit file is under a credit freeze, creditors will only be able to access your account if you thaw it for a specific time period or for a specific company or person. To thaw (and later refreeze) your credit file, have to use a Personal Identification Number (PIN). It’s best to request a thaw at least three days before you apply for credit to make sure the thaw goes through in time.
Cost to freeze and thaw. The cost for adding or lifting a freeze varies from state to state, though it’s usually $10 or less, and fees are ordinarily waived for certain people, like victims of identity theft and those age 65 and over. As of early 2018, Equifax doesn’t charge a fee to place, lift, or permanently remove a credit freeze, though this will likely change at some point.
A credit lock operates the same way as a credit freeze—creditors can’t access your credit file. Again, to protect your credit you need to lock your file with all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The major differences between a credit freeze and credit lock are the ways you may lock and unlock your credit file, and the costs involved.
You can unlock your credit online or through an app. With a credit lock, you may activate or deactivate the lock online or through a mobile app on your smartphone, typically with just a username and password. With a credit freeze, you have to go online, mail your request, or call the credit bureau—and use your PIN—to initiate, lift, or remove a freeze.
You have to pay a monthly fee to lock your credit file with Experian. Credit locks sometimes cost a monthly fee, though not always. Experian charges $4.99 for your first month and $24.99 for each additional month. This can get expensive fast. TransUnion and Equifax, however, offer credit locks for free.
The credit bureaus tend to market credit locks as faster and more user friendly than credit freezes, but in most cases putting a freeze on your credit at all three agencies is the best way to protect yourself. Here’s why.
Credit freezes are regulated by state law. Credit locks, on the other hand, are governed by a contract between you and the credit bureau. Contracts often have terms that aren’t favorable to the consumer, like arbitration clauses that prevent you from participating in a lawsuit. Also, if a thief fraudulently accesses your credit file while a freeze in place, you’ll have better protection against liability under state law. Ultimately, state law will provide you with stronger protections than a contract that the credit bureau drafted.
Credit freezes might be less expensive. Although freezing and thawing your credit file isn’t free, the costs associated with freezing and then temporarily lifting a freeze will likely be cheaper than having to indefinitely pay Experian’s high monthly fee for a credit lock.
Another option for protecting your credit data from fraudulent use is a fraud alert. But, again, a credit freeze is a better way to protect yourself credit fraud. (Learn about the difference between a credit freeze and a fraud alert.)
Whatever identity theft protection method you pick is entirely up to you, but no matter what you choose, you should also regularly get copies of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus. Under federal law, you may get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting agency. (Read about the difference between a credit report and credit score.)
Review the reports for all possible signs of trouble, like accounts you didn't open, inquiries you didn't initiate, and defaults and delinquencies you didn't cause. Then, ask the credit reporting agencies to delete information related to identity theft from your credit report. (Learn about disputing inaccurate information in your credit report.)
To get additional information about how to prevent identity theft or how to deal with identity theft after it happens, go to the FTC's identity theft website at IdentityTheft.gov. (To get a list of steps you should take if your identity is stolen, see Stolen Identity? Here’s What to Do.)
To learn about different state and federal identity theft laws and find other victim resources, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center. For a list of companies that have had data breaches, visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.